Every April, the greenspace of Ellis Square becomes a sea of pink: Shades of fuschia, flamingo, rose and raspberry run together as the four thousand-plus participants of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure take their marks.
The 5K course that winds through downtown and around the squares takes less than an hour, but for many runners, the impact lasts a lifetime.
Sylvia Whitfield was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, powering through her first Komen Race for the Cure during the peak of her radiation treatments.
“All I could do was walk, but it was incredible to be there with other survivors, to draw from their strength,” she recalls.
She returned every year thereafter to share her own survival story with others, as her identical twin, Cynthia, walked by her side in solidarity. When Cynthia was given the same breast cancer diagnosis in 2011, the race became a pillar of support for them both.
“It was a big shock,” says Sylvia, who suffered a recurrence of the disease in 2013, this time undergoing a double mastectomy and chemotherapy.
“Going to the race each year and being with our pink sisters helped then and still does, knowing we’re all there for the same goal, to find a cure.”
She and Cynthia are currently in remission, and Sylvia has one last reconstructive surgery scheduled for July. They’ll be celebrating in matching pink outfits at the starting line this Saturday, April 22.
“Mostly we only dress alike for church, but the race is one of those special occasions,” laughs Cynthia.
The Whitfield sisters have raised thousands of dollars for early detection services and research with the Greater Savannah Support BRAS group (other well-named teams on this year’s roster include “Two Cups of Courage” and “Saving Shari’s Shamrocks.”)
Some of that funding has gone to the advancement of genetic testing to help identify breast cancer risk. While genetics account for only five to 10 percent of breast cancer cases in the U.S., those tests can be revealing.
Cynthia’s doctors found she had the same BRCA 1/2 mutation that Angelina Jolie made famous several years ago; while Sylvia’s insurance didn’t cover the same testing, their shared DNA lends the assumption that she has the same genetic marker. They had an aunt with breast cancer, and they say the leaps in research can help other families stay vigilant about who’s at risk.
“Neither of us have children, so we don’t worry about passing it on,” says Cynthia. “But we do advocate for people with a family history to get tested.”
Sylvia adds that regular mammograms are also key to survival. “I’m here because of my yearly exam.”
The big pink run is one of Savannah’s busiest charity activities and Komen of Coastal Georgia’s highest profile event, but organizers remind that early detection is a major message all year round.
“Early screening saves lives—I can’t say that enough,” says executive director Aileen Gabbey, who oversees operations in Savannah and nine surrounding counties.
“One of the things we do is track data. We’ve discovered that each month, 12 women in our service area are diagnosed with late stage breast cancer. If those 12 women had been screened earlier, their projected outcomes would be so much better. That’s a real motivator.”
Komen is not a direct service provider and doles out funding to local hospital and healthcare centers like Curtis V. Cooper Primary Health Care to ensure that free or low-cost mammograms, breast exams and other essential services are readily available to women, regardless of income.
Seventy-five percent of the proceeds from Saturday’s race, as well as other fundraisers throughout the year like the Big Wig, which enlists local personalities to elicit donations while rocking a neon pageboy, go directly towards those local partners to pay for services.
“What’s raised here, stays here,” promises Gabbey, reiterating that 75 percent/25 percent split, the latter channeled to national research.
The national Susan G. Komen foundation has been mired in controversy in the past decade, from its CEO’s shockingly high salary to its defunding of breast cancer screenings provided by Planned Parenthood to pulling back funds for stem cell research at the country’s most prestigious universities.
In spite of the bad PR, the organization still thrives, and a recent rebranding campaign focuses back on the mission with a new “bold goal” of reducing death from breast cancer by 50 percent by 2026.
Locally, the core of the work continues to be bringing early screening services to women. While Komen of Coastal Georgia does not currently award funding to Savannah’s recently-opened Planned Parenthood healthcare center, Gabbey does not discount that it may in the future if mammography services are offered.
“We take each application on its own merit,” she says.
The local affiliate also partners with area churches to educate women on the importance of breast cancer awareness and trains trusted confidantes like hair stylists to pass on basic information and referral services.
The ubiquity of Komen’s signature hue has led to plenty of “pinkwashing”—the practice of some companies and brands to capitalize on selling pink ribbons, shirts and other accessories without donating back to the cause—but Savannah’s Race for the Cure remains a solid vehicle to provide early screenings for women, including those 12 women a month diagnosed with late stage breast cancer.
“People get caught up in the color, and there’s a lot of meaning behind that pink ribbon,” says Gabbey.
“But Komen is more than pink—it is research and action that is saving lives.”
Sister survivors Sylvia and Cynthia agree that Saturday’s mass of magenta and coral brings deeper meaning.
“It’s an opportunity to share our story and let others survivors know they’re not alone,” says Sylvia.
“But we’ll still be out there in our pink!” promises Cynthia.
Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure
When: 7am, Saturday April 22
Where: Ellis Square